by Carolyn Haley
In a recent discussion with a colleague about editing fiction, I was asked the following questions:
- How do you determine if the language level fits the readership?
- If a phrase is properly worded but there is an alternative phrasing that might be better, how do you determine whether it is better for the target audience?
- How do you decide how much explanation of events or characters is too much or too little?
- How do you decide whether an allusion can be left without explanation?
In each case, my answer is, “It depends.”
It depends, primarily, on scope of work and who you’re working for. Secondarily, it depends on contextual variables, such as genre and vocabulary — and yourself.
Scope of work
The keywords in the above questions are how do you determine and how do you decide. In actuality, you might not have the luxury to do either. For instance, when copyediting a manuscript for a traditional publisher on a freelance basis, you might be barred from revising content. The manuscript already has been content-edited, and the project editor informs you of the parameters to work within for polishing the prose.
Such parameters could range from an admonishment to not touch anything unless it’s patently wrong, to a list of situations that are okay to change and not change. In these situations, if you exceed scope of work by broadly evaluating language level, phrasing, and explanation, and then make revisions pertaining to them, you could get tagged as a freelancer who doesn’t follow directions and not be hired again. Conversely, the project editor might be thrilled that you did so much and hire you again eagerly. But now you’ve established a performance standard disproportionate to your rate, and you may get stuck there for all future jobs.
Sometimes the publisher gives you a free hand as long as you query and justify any changes beyond mechanical details. While documenting so much extra can be annoying and time consuming, it gives opportunity to address issues on multiple levels. Again, though, you might end up with an imbalance between work and paycheck. But if you’re a copyeditor in a solid, long-standing relationship with an individual publisher, you may have more leeway.
The how you determine/decide question mainly comes into play when you’re an independent copyeditor handling novels by independent authors, a situation in which you have more freedom to make choices.
So, back to the original questions:
(1) How do you determine if the language level fits the readership?
By understanding genre, and how it applies to an individual novel.
A young adult story, for instance, is structured with shorter sentences and leaner vocabulary than an adult book. Words that you think might be a stretch for the age group can still be acceptable; after all, none of us is too old (or young) to look things up and learn. As long as context gives a good sense of the word’s meaning, you can usually let it stand, though sometimes it’s a tough call. Authors are cautioned by writing gurus to not “write down” to younger audiences, but may not understand where the line is, which can make things fuzzy for the editor. Generally, in books for youth, too many occurrences of look-up words needs to be queried.
Adult novels allow wider vocabularies. Nevertheless, in some genres certain words are taboo. Take sweet romances and cozy mysteries. These rarely contain profanity or sexual terms, so if you encounter such elements in those genres, you need to query and suggest options. Similarly, science fiction commonly includes technical terms, which are fine for that audience but may confuse readers in, say, a dark mystery focusing on relationships. Fantasy novels often create words for magical systems and alien worlds, which, too, are fine for that audience. However, those words might be hard to read because of strange spellings, or character names might be confusing because so many start with the same letter to indicate variants of tribal names. That convention might make story sense but adds labor for the reader, making it something you should query.
Action-based stories normally use short or fragmented sentences; short paragraphs, chapters, and words; and are heavy on verbs, but light on adverbs and adjectives. Verbosity and passive construction defeat the story’s purpose and must be edited and/or queried and/or discussed with the author. Likewise with any contemporary novel that overuses brand names or fad language because the author is trying to be hip, or to slavishly follow someone’s advice to be detail-specific. These can date the story needlessly or overload it with minutiae, each of which can interfere with reader attention or interest.
In any context, language that doesn’t work usually draws attention to itself by making the reader stumble. I take my cue from stumbles to focus on the cause and consider alternative phrasing. Whether to edit, query, or talk with the author depends on the scope of work. Sometimes there’s more going on than either you or the author anticipated, and you have to renegotiate timeline and fee.
(2) If a phrase is properly worded but there is an alternative phrasing that might be better, how do you determine whether it is better for the target audience?
“Better” is a highly subjective term, so ensure that your judgment of “better” is a matter of clarity and comprehension, not just your personal taste. When editors start questioning or recasting too much of an author’s writing because they think it’s not good enough, they’re entering the realm of changing author voice. That’s a big no-no in fiction, which is why I use stumbling as my first decision-making criterion. I may not be the ideal representative of the target audience, but I’m well read enough to trip on something that doesn’t work. So when stumbles provoke me to consider alternative language, I review the choices in the context of the author’s audience and genre, and edit or query as suits the scope of work.
(3) How do you decide how much explanation of events or characters is too much or too little?
By stumbling while reading, or being pushed out of the story.
Most of us have encountered novels wherein the author presents so much detail or backstory that the narrative bogs down. Such “info dumps” are a frequent cause of readers skipping ahead or bailing out, and should be addressed. Part of storytelling finesse is to provide just enough information to let readers understand what’s going on and create a clear picture in their minds, while leaving out enough to lure them along. When authors fail to do this, you should draw their attention to it and suggest whether to condense, delete, or relocate the material.
Conversely, too little information leads to confusion. Unclear action, unreacted-to moments, unsubstantiated logic leaps, incomplete scenarios — all force readers to back up and figure out what’s going on. Most of these situations require queries, although sometimes simple edits like adding a pronoun or reversing a sentence can take care of the problem.
(4) How do you decide whether an allusion can be left without explanation?
This is a tricky call. Each editor brings a different knowledge base to a story, and some will understand certain allusions automatically and glide by them, whereas others won’t make the connection and will need it explained, and still others will be uncertain enough to ask. It’s safe to assume that readers will run the same gamut. Best practice is to flag any allusion that appears in a story and ask the author to confirm that it means what you think it means, and whether the author believes all readers will understand it. Perhaps suggest that the point will be better made by spelling it out.
“It depends” as a standing condition
Because so much of fiction editing is contextual and subjective, it’s hard to know where to draw lines between right and wrong. Yet many narrative moments have no concrete right or wrong presentation (which is why style guides are considered guides, not rule books). Copyeditors of fiction must have some tolerance for rule ambiguity so they can help authors keep ambiguity out of their voice and vision. That means editing with a light touch unless directed otherwise by the hiring party, and flagging anything that might raise a question in readers’ minds or generate confusion. “When in doubt, query” serves well in most instances. Every potential issue the editor points out is one that author can revisit and prevent becoming an issue for the reader. While “it depends” is often the answer to a question, copyeditors who know what “it” depends on can best convey to authors their choices and the advantages one has over another.
Carolyn Haley lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.